This Anti-Harassment Tactic Sets Women Back — and May Be Illegal

In the fall of 2017, when stories of workplace sexual harassment and assault began exploding in Hollywood, #MeToo went viral and established one thing beyond question: Harassment thrives in all industries, knows no borders, and speaks all languages. #MeToo became #YoTambien became #BalanceTonPorc became #QuellaVoltaChe and . . . echoed through offices and factories all around the world.

A year later, when LinkedIn surveyed 5,000 talent and HR professionals across the globe, they named anti-harassment as one of four trends that will most impact talent acquisition this year. In Global Talent Trends 2019, there are four tactics to fight harassment and create a culture of respect, including rethinking well-intentioned practices that can backfire. That tip was aimed primarily at zero-tolerance policies and forced arbitration.

But it also pertains to another long-time practice that seems to be gaining traction anew: Men, particularly senior-level leaders, are less and less willing to meet one-on-one with women. Historically, this approach was referred to as the Billy Graham Rule. In 1948, the famed evangelist and his inner circle created the Modesto Manifesto, which included a vow not to travel, meet, or eat alone with a woman who was not their wife. Today, it is sometimes called the Pence Rule, named after the current U.S. vice-president who also says he will not eat alone with a woman other than his wife.

Male managers are increasingly uncomfortable working one-on-one with female coworkers

Surveys done by LeanIn.org and Survey Monkey at the beginning of last year found that nearly half of male managers were uncomfortable taking part in common workplace activities — mentoring, socializing, or working alone — with a woman. The number who said they were uncomfortable mentoring women rose from 5% to 16% in one year.

In January, The New York Times reported that several men attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, acknowledged worrying about “mentoring women in the #MeToo era.” The story went on to add that companies “seeking to minimize the risk of sexual harassment or misconduct appear to be simply minimizing contact between female employees and senior male executives.”  

It’s a closed-door policy. “Basically,” one female leader told the Times, “#MeToo has become a risk-management issue for men.”

And that’s a big problem.

Avoiding women in the workplace does not help them and may be illegal

First, in some cases, this practice may be illegal, a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination in the workplace.

Second, it’s based on a viewpoint that largely sees women as sexual objects — overlooking their skills, insights, and leadership — and men as weak individuals completely controlled by rampant libidos. It “arises from a broken view of the sexes,” writes Katelyn Beaty, the former managing editor of Christianity Today, in a New York Times op-ed piece. “Men are lustful beasts that must be contained, while women are objects of desire that must be hidden away.” And this sexual framing of gender relationships is what led to harassment problems in the first place.

Most importantly, the Graham-Pence Rule is a setback for women because it severely impairs their ability to get ahead at work. It cuts them off from the relationships, projects, and, yes, socializing, that their male counterparts will continue to have access to. As one commentator notes: If you don’t schmooze, you lose. Instead of creating a culture of respect, companies are just replacing one culture of fear with another.

To flourish at work, women need access to male mentors and sponsors

“If we allow this to happen, it will set us back decades,” says Pat Milligan, who researches female leadership for the consulting firm Mercer. “Women have to be sponsored by leaders, and leaders are still mostly men.” An analysis of S&P 500 companies found that 86% of top management positions were held by men.

“Without access to beneficial friendships and mentor relationships with executive men, women won’t be able to close the gender gap that exists in most professions,” wrote Kim Elsesser, a former scholar at UCLA’s Center for the Study of Women, in the Los Angeles Times.

So what’s a company to do?

Embrace women — by supporting, mentoring, and sponsoring them — rather than close doors on them. “Women need support, not isolation,” write Rachel Thomas and Stacy Brown-Philpot in the Wall Street Journal. “Want to fight sexual harassment? Don’t avoid women. Mentor them.”

Here are some other tips:

Ruchika Tulshyan, an inclusion consultant who wrote The Diversity Advantage: Fixing Gender Inequality in the Workplace, suggests that companies codify the need for their leaders to seek protégés who don’t look like they do. “Employers must match senior leaders with high potential employees from underrepresented backgrounds,” Ruchika told Fortune.com. “There must be clear goals and accountability.”

• Don’t lock people up in their cubicles or hotel rooms. Encourage men and women to interact professionally and normalize one-on-one meetings, brainstorms, and check-ins. “If you always saw men and women meeting together for dinner,” Kim Elsesser told The Atlantic, “people wouldn’t see it as suspicious.”

Final thoughts: More women at the top of a company will lead to more success — and less harassment

Companies that tacitly accept the Graham-Pence Rule may be setting themselves up for problems down the line by making it more difficult for women to advance into leadership positions. “Some common risk factors for sexual harassment include workplaces with a strict hierarchical power dynamic where men outnumber women and most supervisors are male,” says an article published by the American Psychological Association.

More than half of the women talent and HR professionals (51%) that LinkedIn surveyed said that having more women in a company’s leadership is an effective way to combat harassment. And study after study after study show businesses with more gender balance in their top tier outperform those without it.

Women are still woefully underrepresented at every level in corporate America — except entry level. Men working as mentors and sponsors for women can help correct these imbalances, which, in turn, will help decrease harassment and increase profits and productivity.

To receive blog posts like this one straight in your inbox, subscribe to the blog newsletter.